Virus forces airlines to slash prices

The rapid spread of coronavirus cases worldwide is complicating a standard strategy used by airlines when disease, disaster or conflict hit travel destinations: lower fares and redirect flights to trouble-free areas.

For now, some airlines have resorted to suspending change fees for new ticket reservations in the hope of winning over hesitant travellers until it becomes clearer where coronavirus outbreaks are localised and which routes could benefit from price drops.

While lower fares have proven effective in the past in reviving demand, aviation consultant Samuel Engel said, "The pocketbook only works so far against emotion."

The coronavirus, which emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has spread across the world, with more new cases now appearing outside China than inside.

JetBlue Airways, which does not fly to Asia, was the first airline to launch free rebooking options last week, as it became clear that cases were not isolated to China. JetBlue pulled together and announced its plan in a matter of hours, president Joanna Geraghty told Reuters.

US majors have since followed suit with varying waivers on change fees for new reservations to many destinations, a switch from a previous policy that covered only pre-booked flights to areas hardest-hit by the coronavirus.

But with none of the offers so far guaranteeing money-back refunds, travellers say the policies are not enough.

"I understand that there are a lot of question marks right now for the industry on how this will unfold, but I don't feel like there's a truly customer-friendly policy out here," said Amanda Elman-Kolb of Chicago, who has put on hold plans for a family trip to Europe in August.

Declining demand to fly abroad is not limited to US travellers. International travel to the United States will fall 6 per cent over the next three months amid coronavirus concerns, the largest decline since the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the US Travel Association forecast on Tuesday.

With extra widebody jets on hand after suspending flights to China, South Korea, Japan and northern Italy, major US airlines are deploying them on domestic routes, a process known as upgauging.

Europe's biggest carriers warned on Tuesday that the epidemic was upsetting growth, with Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary forecasting a "very deflated booking environment" for the next two to three weeks before recovering.

"After Easter if things have settled down, temperatures in Europe are rising, I think there will be a significant decline in the spread of the virus. Airlines will then respond with seat promotions, seat sales that will get people back travelling very quickly," he told Reuters.

In the Asia-Pacific region, offers are under way.

Malaysian budget airline AirAsia X, which was struggling financially even before the coronavirus, launched a RM499 ($A180.49) one-year pass for unlimited trips to Australia, Japan, Korea, China and India, excluding taxes and fees on each trip - a move that CEO Benyamin Ismail called "unprecedented".

Fares are softening too on routes not directly affected by travel bans, with Australia to Los Angeles 25 per cent lower in the three weeks ended February 26 compared with the same period last year, data provided to Reuters by Skyscanner showed.

In perhaps the most vivid example, Vietnam Airlines JSC last week said it would offer $0 round-trip fares from Ho Chi Minh City to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, excluding taxes and fees, to help stimulate tourism through the end of May.

Austrlaian Associated PressBack to Breaking News

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